Illustration for article titled It's time to be the singular Photo: Josie Elias (Shutterstock)

Grammar snobs may shudder in disgust at this idea, but it’s time to normalize the use of them / them as singular pronouns. It’s 2021; no more of that “he or she, his or her” stuff.

It’s perfectly reasonable to use gender-neutral pronouns in casual conversation – both written and oral – and it turns out it even makes perfect grammatical sense. While using these words as plural pronouns is a hard-wired trait, if you decide to change the rule, you won’t be defying traditional grammar convention.

However, you may have to endure the fair handshakes of certain grammar purists who insist you commit a terrible faux pas. The only thing is, they are the ones who are wrong.

Illustration for article titled It's time to be the singular

‘Sie’ has been a singular pronoun for 600 years

From the moment we start speaking English we are taught that the word they use is meant to describe only a plural distinction. Nonsense. The oldest written example of the singular originated in the 14th century when it was used in the medieval romance Wilhelm and the Werewolf.

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But after that Oxford English Dictionary, their singular roots may go back even further.

Since forms can exist in language long before they are written down, it is likely that they were common as singular as early as the late 14th century. That makes an old shape even older.

The implication – that they have existed as singular pronouns for about 600 years to identify someone across the gender spectrum – should be evidence enough that this is not an attempt to force a rule change. In fact, there are numerous examples of the singular throughout literary history.

As the BBC listed in 2019::

Examples of the singular “you” used as early as 1386 in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and in 1599 in famous literary works such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

“Sie” and “Sie” were still used by literary writers in the 17th century to describe people – including Jane Austin in her 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice.

There are more examples than Purdue University explainsfrom Wycliffe’s 1382 translation of the Bible to Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in which the Bard writes:

“Strangely enough, they burden healing with strange wounds”

Illustration for article titled It's time to be the singular

The grammar is constantly evolving

You might gasp for breath, but it remains true that the only constant in grammar and language is change. For example, the word that you have almost universally considered the singular these days evolved from a much more fluid stature where it could easily be used as the plural for years.

As Oxford explains:

They acted as the polite singular for centuries, but in the 17th century singular, they replaced you, you, and yours, except for one dialect. This change met with resistance. In 1660, George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, wrote an entire book labeling everyone who used you as idiots or fools. And eighteenth-century grammarians like Robert Lowth and Lindley Murray regularly tested students on you as singular, you as plural, although students used singular you when their teachers were not looking and teachers used singular you when their students were not looking.

The use of you has evolved, that is, the current reorientation of the pronouns in 2021 is normal. You may find yourself defying certain style guides and grammar books, but it’s good to keep in mind that for the most part, lexicons never stop changing.

Purdue University explains the following:

The grammar changes and changes over time. For example, the chunky he or she replacing a singular is a relatively new introduction to the language. Singular they have been used for a long time and are used in most occasional situations; You’re probably doing it yourself without realizing it. We are just seeing a reorientation of the rule, mainly with the intention of involving more people in the language.

It’s also more inclusive

All of this means that using non-gender pronouns is more inclusive and it really doesn’t have to be that big of a deal. More formal announcements to groups can really benefit from such things. For example, if you make an announcement like “Employees should keep personal items in their locker,” just say, “Their locker.” Or when you say, “The owner of the Blue Honda Civic needs to move their car,” you are simply saying “their car”.

In addition to taking into account the growing cohort of people who don’t identify by the traditional gender paradigm, it just sounds a lot better. And oh yes, it’s grammatically correct too.